“The Squidbillies: Continuing a Tradition of Othering Rural Americans” by William Matthew McCarter

In 1994, filmmaker John Waters wrote “in six months, no one will say white trash…it is the last racist thing you can say and get away with it” (cited in McCarter, 2005). Waters prophecy has still not come to pass; instead, race specific and class specific terms like redneck, white trash, hillbilly, peckerwood, and cracker are arguably more often used in contemporary discourse than they were in 1994. David Willis and Jim Fortier continue this rhetorical and literary tradition of othering rural Americans through their animated television series Squidbillies. This series features the Cuylers, anthropomorphic hillbilly squids, living in abject poverty in the mountains of North Georgia. Featured as part of the Adult Swim programming block on Cartoon Network, the series joins other adult oriented cartoons like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Several of the animated series on Adult Swim often deal with dark subjects and employ morbid and surreal humor. What is interesting about these other shows is that few if any of them have any real basis in reality. While the same can be said for Squidbillies in the sense that the Cuylers are anthropomorphic squids, if we look deeper into the series, we can see that the discourse used to “other” the Cuylers would still work even if they weren’t. The only reason why the representation of these hillbillies as squids (or less than human) works is because a discourse of hillbillies (or rednecks or white trash or other epithet used to describe poor rural whites) already exists and it already illustrates how poor rural whites are less than human.

The adult oriented cartoons found on Adult Swim are largely a 21st-century phenomenon, conceived, in part, to capitalize off of its wildly popular and commercially successful predecessors: The Simpsons and South Park. While Squidbillies is a contemporary adult cartoon that utilizes a very contemporary medium, the message—a discourse of othering rural Americans—is older than America itself. Americans can trace this discourse genealogically throughout American history. The Cuylers are the 21st-century Clampetts from the wildly popular 1960s syndicated television show, The Beverly Hillbillies. In addition, we can find the antecedents of the Cuylers in the films featuring Ma and Pa Kettle. Prior to the widespread proliferation of television, during the golden age of radio, listeners experienced the discourse of rural othering through popular programs like Lum and Abner. In the print media, this same discourse was proliferated in the books like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and in comic strips like Lil Abner and Snuffy Smith. Even in the 19th century, this same discourse manifests itself in the works of Mark Twain and in Southern Frontier Humor. However, probably the first representation of this discourse of rural othering can be found in Colonial American Literature.

William Byrd II’s History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina is the primogenitor of Adult Swim’s Squidbillies. Byrd’s depictions of North Carolina’s “lubbers” demonstrates how the Tidewater aristocracy, what was later referred to as the First Families of Virginia, must have felt about those rural whites living out on the frontier. Although the text was written in a comical tone, Byrd’s descriptions have had rather serious effects on the shared perception of poor whites that followed and serve as the earliest representation of a discourse of exclusion designed to “racialize” and “other” poor rural whites. Byrd borrowed the term “lubbers” from English culture. For the English, lubberland was known as an imaginary place of plenty without labor, a land of laziness where inhabitants lollygagged around.

By calling those who live out on the frontier “lubbers,” Byrd was implying that the inhabitants of these out of the way places were not just different from other colonial settlers, but were also morally, culturally, and socially inferior. To describe an individual or social group as “idle’ or “lazy” was to simultaneously express moral condemnation and the highest degree of contempt. This perception, the structure of feeling, was deeply imbedded in the core of British imperialism and it was made manifest through the empire. As Anne McClintock (1995) has noted, since at least the 16th century, the British had associated slothfulness with corruption and poverty. In the years that followed, Puritanism had articulated an elaborate set of moral, political, and cultural traits based on sharply delineated conceptions of industrialness vs. idleness. In calling the rural whites “lubbers,” Byrd was racializing their whiteness.

In “Surviving Race: Establishing Boundaries of Colonial American Whiteness,” John Miller explains that much of the scholarship on Byrd’s work has been misinterpreted. According to Miller, “Byrd’s scathing descriptions of the white settlers he encounters on his Mid-Atlantic surveying mission tend to be uniformly read by critics as scorn by the panel Virginia authors for his North Carolina neighbors.” For Miller, however, “there is a larger racial project occurring in The Histories, one that involves more than just Native American figures, and offers a more thorough explanation for Byrd’s disdain for his fellow Caucasian colonists. The aristocratic author and political leader of Virginia is racializing whiteness, creating a white other in order to affirm his own elite social position and justify his claims to vast new territories in America” (McCarter 2005).

If we look carefully at the claims that Byrd makes in his work, we can see the constitutive components of this racialized discourse. Not only are these components used to other rural Americans over more than two centuries, it is also the same discourse that is often used to other people from different races, ethnicities, and cultures. For example, one component of this racialized discourse can be found in physiognomy or assessing a person’s character based on their physical appearance. Byrd claims that the North Carolinians “devour so much swine’s flesh” that “fills them with gross humours” and causes “all the symptoms of syphilis” (Byrd, 22). By claiming that the living and dietary arrangements of these “lubbers” affected them biologically, Byrd is illustrating how moral or behavior characteristics are manifested in the body. Thus, we have a biological difference between Byrd and the “lubbers.” Biological differences and physiognomy are common tropes used in racialized discourses. In the case of the Squidbillies in particular, the creators use hyperbole to exaggerate the biological difference. Not only are the characters depicted as the stereotypical buck toothed hillbillies but their bodies are squids.

After demonstrating how the dietary practices of the “lubbers” constitute a biological difference which, in part, makes them inferior to aristocratic Virginians like William Byrd, he moves on to the clothes that these poor redneck savages wear by pointing out how the women mix cotton and wool for their clothing and how this “kind of manufacture is open and sleazy.” Byrd goes on to explain how the “lubbers” are too lazy to cultivate flax (Byrd, 22). Surely, using a discourse of exclusion based on dietary practices, physiognomy, and morality, would be enough to illustrate that these rural Carolinians are not only different but are inferior to Byrd and his group, but Byrd does not stop there. He goes on to describe the geography in order to illustrate the geographic differences between he and his fellow Virginians and those who live in North Carolina. Byrd claims that “not even a turkey buzzard” would fly over Carolina and compares it to “Sodom and Gomorrah” (Byrd, 22). Geography is also a common trope used in racially charged discourses. In The Squidbillies, the geography is rural Georgia and the only substantial difference between this geographic other and those from other races and ethnicities is that The Squidbillies are just simply a whiter shade of pale beyond the pale.

John Miller writes: “Not only does Byrd’s book describe the marking of the border between Virginia and North Carolina colonies; it also depicts the defining of boundaries in white America along economic, political and social lines” (1). While the geographical distinctions of Byrd’s Dividing Line really don’t work in contemporary society, if one looks beyond the geographical constraints of Byrd’s work, one can see that Byrd is referring to “lubberland” as being a state of mind and not North Carolina as a State in the Union. Miller writes, “By establishing this prototype for ‘white trash’, Byrd emerges in comparison as the true savior and leader of the young colonies” (McCarter 2005). In summary, Byrd uses dietary practices, physiognomy, morality, geography, and even religion to illustrate how Carolinians are substantially different (or other) than those from Virginia.

In Cartoon Network’s series Squidbillies, these same discursive formations are used to “other” those white trash folks who live in rural America. In the scene that opens every Squidbillies episode, viewers see Early, the main character, twisting the knob on a car radio with one of his tentacles. The legendary white trash honky tonk hero himself, Billy Joe Shaver, begins singing the theme music as Early grabs a tentacle full of Red Man chewing tobacco. After that, Early loads his shotgun and then puts it in the gun rack of the pickup truck. At this point, the viewer sees Early’s squid face and a ball cap with the words “Booty Hunter” written on it. As the camera fades out, the viewer notices that the pickup truck is up on blocks in the middle of a yard that looks like a garbage dump.

From the very beginning of the show, the creators are, essentially, explicitly racializing the whiteness of the Squidbillies (and hillbillies and rednecks implicitly) by using what appears to be a discourse of class to “other” them. Just as their predecessor, William Byrd II, showed that the “lubbers” of North Carolina were very different than the more respectable people from Virginia (especially the wealthy), Willis and Fortier illustrate how the Squidbillies are different from our contemporary white middle class American society. The opening scene sets up this difference by using visual representations of rural culture to create a binary between that culture and the middle class. The chewing tobacco, loaded firearms, and “Booty Hunter” ball cap are designed to show the viewer that “these people are not us.” All of these stereotypical representations take place in the opening scene of the series before the show actually even starts.

While we could argue that these discursive formations seem to be explicitly referring to social class in America, there is, in fact, a larger racial project going on here. In Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray’s anthology, White Trash: Race and Class in America, social theorist, Allan Berube speaks to this racialized discourse in his essay, “Sunset Trailer Park.” Berube writes: “other whites who looked down on us because of where we lived could call my whiteness into question. Ashamed, I kept these and other social injuries to myself, channeling them into desires to learn about how to act and look more white, and to find other ways to move up and out of this life that more and more felt like a trap I had to escape” (33). In addition, one of the editors of the anthology, Annalee Newitz, reinforces this idea of a racialized whiteness when she writes “when middle-class whites encounter lower-class whites, we find that often their class differences are represented as the difference between civilized folks and primitive ones. Lower class whites get racialized, and demeaned, because they fit into the primitive/civilized binary as primitives” (134).

The creators of the series use this same binary between the white middle class and the rural poor in the opening frame of the episode titled “School Days, Fool Days.” This scene shows Early and his son Rusty standing along what appears to be a sideline with a soccer ball in the background. This appears to be a direct contrast between Early and the more traditional middle class soccer mom. Early gives Rusty a motivational speech, puts his tentacle on Rusty’s and says “on three.” Instead of counting to three and saying “Let’s go” or something else that one might expect when watching one of these sports pep talks, Early gets stuck on the number one and can’t count to three. At this point, Rusty says, “I ain’t never played no soccer, daddy.” Early replies “And you ain’t a never gonna get to. Now get in there and fight like a cock,” as he kicks the soccer ball out of the way and throws Rusty into a cockfighting ring. Early then goes over to a betting window and puts money down on the “eight legged chicken to lose.” Finally, the cock fight is broken up by the local sheriff (It is interesting to note that only the family of “Squidbillies” are squids. Everyone else in the animated television program is human).

In addition to the biological, geographical, spiritual, and moral differences between poor rural whites and the more respectable classes of people (like Byrd’s Tidewater aristocracy or contemporary America’s middle class), poor rural whites are also often portrayed as being stupid. While, on the surface, this may seem like Willis and Fortier’s attempt at making a cultural critique of the rural poor’s anti-intellectualism, this could also be seen as yet another example of the American hegemony “blaming the victim.” Rural schools often have the same issues in terms of public education that urban schools do. In fact, much of rural America has a per capita income substantially similar to that of the average urban poor community. Because of the romanticized image of America’s pastoral landscapes, the “purple mountain majesties” of places like Appalachia and the Ozarks do not conjure the same images of poverty that are often associated with Flint, Michigan or Detroit. However, the per capita income and rates of unemployment and poverty are substantially similar. There are just fewer people and the poverty is spread out more. By using the trope of being stupid and perpetually blaming the victim, the American hegemony can justify not investing in rural America.

Nearly all of the white trash stereotypes are simply too tempting for Willis and Fortier to avoid throughout the series. For example, when the sheriff brings Rusty back home to the shack where the Squidbillies live, the first “family member” he encounters is Granny Squid. She is holding on to a walker and smoking a cigarette. After fixating on the image of the “Granny” character, the focus shifts to Early. He is now wearing a ball cap that says “I Love Cockfighting.” Soon, Early is joined by his wife, a squid with thick eye shadow, red lipstick, and an obnoxious blonde hairdo. She looks like a cross between Dolly Parton and an octopus. Quickly, Early puts Granny on a scooter, pushes her down the drive and says “now get back to the nursing home where you belong.” Finally, he turns to the sheriff and says, “What can I do for you?” In this scene, Willis and Fortier continue showing how these “squidbillies” are different than “normal” white middle class families. Granny is an elderly woman who needs a walker and yet, still smokes cigarettes (something that is obviously bad for one’s health but is also a trademark of white trash culture). In addition, Early continues his monstrous behavior toward his family in that he not only entered his child into a cockfighting contest (and bet against him) but he also shipped his mother off to a nursing home (something that is likely a source of older white middle class anxiety).

The sheriff responds to Early’s question by saying “your boy needs to be in school.” Immediately, Early becomes defensive and says “School…ain’t that the place where they got all the damned…uh… they fold out…covered in scribbles…wrote up all over.” Finally, the sheriff says “books” and Early replies by saying “No, they square like a magazine” before flashing back to his own school days where he can’t recite the “ABCs” and winds up burning the schoolhouse to the ground. The sheriff suggests that Rusty and the other squidbillies are “other” when he says “we can’t send him to the county school” and makes an allusion to segregation. This allusion is especially important in terms of the invisibility of this racialized discourse in that if it had been directed at someone of another race, ethnicity, or religion, there is no way that could air on national television. The public outcry would be enormous. However, because these are hillbillies…I mean, uhm, squidbillies, then it is acceptable. Early replies “you ain’t enseminating that I keep him here are you?” Finally, the sheriff recommends that Early home school him and Early replies “what the hell is in it for me?” The sheriff tells Early that he will get paid for homeschooling Rusty so…Rusty goes to school. This entire scene reinforces the stereotype that poor rural whites are stupid and uneducable and also continues developing the idea that Early is completely self serving and doesn’t really care about his family. Willis and Fortier are also able to take a pot shot at the home schooling movement, further developing the idea that poor rural whites are rednecks who “cling to their guns and religion.”

The episode goes on to show Rusty’s home school education. Early and Rusty are standing in the woods, Early takes attendance, and then says “On to history. Now, what just happened?” When Rusty replies “I don’t know,” Early says “Hell, I don’t know either. Must be a repossessed memory,” then he pulls out a can of paint thinner and says “Damn you party liquor” making an inference to the recent documentary film, White Lightening, that chronicles the life of West Virginia mountain dancer Jessico White and his addiction to inhalants. The scene then changes to a service station bathroom where Early says, “Rusty, read from the assigned text.” Rusty responds from inside the bathroom stall saying “They paint these walls to hide my pen/ But the shithouse poet strikes again.” Here it is not clear whether Willis and Fortier are taking a shot at rednecks or academics when Early asks, “What did the shithouse poet mean by that?” Rusty then surprises the audience by saying “maybe he feels oppressed by an Orwellian overlord so he lashes out with guerilla style poetry and what not.”

The scene continues when Early ignores Rusty’s analysis of the shithouse poet’s work and says “go ahead with the text.” Rusty, again reading from inside the bathroom stall says “For a good B.J. call 555-0169.” Immediately, Early grabs an old giant 1980s mobile phone and says “repeat the last stanza” and dials the number. The old toothless granny answers the phone and asks “are you calling about the B.J.?” At this point, Willis and Fortier feel the need to back off just a little bit because they are getting way beyond the realms of good taste. It turns out that the B.J. that was advertised on the bathroom stall was not fellatio but was instead, Boysenberry Jam. However, it is odd that the creators of the series and the executive producers of the Cartoon Network would feel that all of the stereotypes of rural people that the series perpetuates and exaggerates are somehow acceptable but that Granny fellatio was somehow in too bad a taste for the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

The scene ends with Early telling Rusty “get your stuff son, we got a field trip.” In the following scene the audience finds Early and Rusty out in nature. Early says “this here is a field and you is gonna take a trip” and then pushes Rusty down a well. He looks into the well and says “If you get out, you passed” and then returns to his shack out in the country. Early is joined by his wife who asks, “did you throw his ass down the well” and then says “I hope he gets out cause tonight’s the prom.” Rusty gets out for the prom and Early tells him “Rusty, now you got finals tomorrow. After that, you’re future is only limited by damn foreigners who come in here & took up all the damn jobs and you can’t shoot ‘em cause then you the one at fault.” Meanwhile, in the middle of Early’s jingoistic speech (which by the way, is the longest sentence that Early has said throughout the entire episode), the granny and the step mom get in a knife fight over who is going to dance with Rusty and then start making out with each other. In this scene, Willis and Fortier add xenophobia and sexual promiscuity to the litany of ways that poor rural whites are racialized and othered.

In the final scene, the audience gets to see Rusty’s final exam. Rusty is standing alone on the railroad tracks and Early tells the onlookers that if Rusty is smart enough to move out of the way when the train comes, then he passes. Rusty moves out of the way and then says “I am a high school congradulate.” If one were to look at all of these examples of how poor rural whites are depicted in the animated series Squidbillies, one would assume that the series was a short film or a half hour situation comedy like The Family Guy or South Park. However, this particular episode of Squidbillies was only eleven minutes long. In only eleven minutes, Willis and Fortier are able to reinforce and extend a discourse of exclusion that “others” poor rural whites that has been in existence since colonial America. The visual rhetoric and speech acts that make up this discourse help to reinforce the values of the ruling class—specifically, the merits of capitalism. In other words, poor rural whites don’t have to be indolent, lazy, xenophobic redneck crackers—they choose to be. The dominant class can say the same thing about poor rural whites that it has said about those from other races, ethnicities, and cultures: “If they will just learn to act more white then they wouldn’t have as many problems.” And if the rednecks can’t learn to act more white? Well then let them eat SPAM because they probably already do anyway.

Works Cited
Byrd, William. History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. New York: Dover, 1967.
McCarter, William Matthew. “Homo Redneckus: Redefining White Trash in America.” http://www.americanpopularculture.com. 1 1, 2005. http://www.americanpopularculture.com/archive/style/homo_redneckus.htm (accessed 1 18, 2011).
Wray, Matt and Newitz, Annalee. White Trash: Race and Class in America. Routledge. New York. 1997.

William Matthew McCarter is college professor from Southeast Missouri. He recently published academic work in The Atrium: A Journal of Academic Voices and Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice and Fastcapitalism. He has also published critical work in The Ascentos Review and in The Steel Toe Review. He has also published fiction and book reviews. His first academic book, Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America will be published in 2012.

“Regional ‘Othering’ in Hershell Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs!” by William Matthew McCarter

Drive in movie king, Hershell Gordon Lewis, known by B movie enthusiasts as the “Godfather of Gore,” released the horror film Two Thousand Maniacs! to drive-in theater audiences in 1964. This was the second of Lewis’ “Blood Trilogy,” following Blood Feast (released in 1963) and followed by Color Me Blood Red (released in 1965). Lewis not only delivered his trademark blood and gore but also successfully created a creepy atmosphere in the film, proving that he is capable of doing more than just the blood and gore that one would expect from a B movie. Those who have seen his other films might argue that Lewis reached a real creative peak with Two Thousand Maniacs![1]

One reason why this film might be considered superior to Lewis’ other offerings is that the concept for this film was inspired by the Broadway musical Brigadoon which Lewis’ partner, Dave Friedman had previously seen in New York. Dave Friedman was a Southerner from Alabama and while Lewis was born in Pittsburg, he was a Professor of Literature at Mississippi State University prior to his filmmaking career. It is no doubt their exposure to the South and the “Southern Gothic” tradition that led them to turn Brigadoon into a slasher film set in the Deep South. However, by changing the setting of the story from the Scottish Highlands to the Deep South, Lewis and Friedman only added to the litany of insults contained in stories about the Deep South. Essentially, what might have been an interesting twist on a popular musical turned into a formulaic plot of Southern gore films: Yankees get stranded in the rural South and are horrifically murdered by backwoods Southern rednecks.[2]

Two Thousand Maniacs! begins with a bluegrass band playing a song titled “The South Will Rise Again.” For modern audiences, the mere presence of “banjo music” is a clue as to what will likely happen next, but audiences in 1965 hadn’t had the pleasure of having James Dickey’s Deliverance as a cultural commonplace. Because banjo music apparently wasn’t quite enough to foreshadow the coming events in the film, Lewis incorporated a scene with a group of children lynching a cat to accompany the banjo music. The cat had a sign that read “Damn Yankees” tied to its tail, and this set the tone for the opening scenes that followed.

Traveling through South Florida, heading for Atlanta, three couples: Tom White (William Kerwin) and Terry Adams (Connie Mason); John (Jerome Eden) and Bea Miller (Shelby Livingston); and David (Michael Korb) and Betty Wells (Yvonne Gilbert) take a detour off of the highway and wind up about a hundred miles from Georgia in a sleepy little town called Pleasant Valley that resembles Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show. Upon entering the town, the travelers meet a very cheerful Mayor Buckman (Jeffrey Allen) who wants them to be the guests of honor at the town’s Centennial celebration. The townspeople set the travelers up in hotel rooms and offer to provide them with free meals. Thinking that it would be fun to participate in the festivities and admiring the Southern charm of the mayor and the Confederate flag waving locals, the “Yankees” decide that they will stay for the celebration. [3]

The “special guests” of this centennial celebration soon find out that Pleasantville isn’t just a quaint Southern town—it is a quaint Southern town with a secret. Pleasantville’s story is quite remarkable in that the town was wiped out by Union forces (a mere six Yankee soldiers) during the Civil War. In order to avenge this atrocity, the Southern ghost town comes alive every hundred years—on the anniversary of the town’s massacre by six Yankee soldiers—to exact its Southern revenge on unsuspecting “Yankees” (made up of the six people with northern license plates who followed the detour sign). The audience knows that stopping in the town was a bad idea to being with (after all they heard banjo music), but the six guests in the hotel don’t yet suspect that the townspeople plan on brutally murdering them as retribution for a Civil War massacre by Union troops in a war that the South lost a hundred years before.

Lewis uses the first few minutes of the film to set up the plot, and it takes some time before blood gets spilled, but in due time, the six strangers soon discover that the townspeople will be taking bloody revenge on them for the past atrocities committed by Yankees from up north. Once the guests are settled into their hotel rooms, each of them are lured away to take part in an event that will lead to their untimely demise. The violence in the movie begins with a charming but aging Southern lothario who lures Bea Miller (Shelby Livingston) away from her husband, John. After a casual make out session, he invites her to “touch his blade” and cuts her thumb off with a paring knife. In the next scene, in the mayor’s office, (with a Confederate flag in the background) she is surrounded by a group of townspeople who hold her down and chop off her arm with an axe. Later on that night, some of the townspeople are sitting around a campfire, roasting her severed arm over the fire, while “The Pleasant Valley Boys,” a bluegrass trio complete with a banjo player, sing “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” At the same campfire, John Miller (Jerome Eden) has his limbs tied up to four horses and is “quartered.”[4]

The next couple, David and Betty Wells (Michael Korb and Yvonne Gilbert), meet an equally gruesome end. The townspeople lure Betty Wells to a platform beneath a large boulder where she is tied down kicking and screaming. In a twisted rendition of the “dunking booth,” a lever releases the boulder and she is crushed to death. Later, Betty’s husband, David is stuck in a barrel that has nails driven inside of it and, with a Confederate flag in the background, is rolled down the hill. By the time he reaches the bottom, he, too, is dead. Two out of the six “guests,” Tom White and Terry Adams (William Kerwin and Connie Mason) guess what is in store for them and make their escape in a red convertible while being chased by the townspeople of Pleasantville. When they make it to the main road, the townspeople fade into the background. After making it to the nearest town, the local sheriff there doesn’t believe their story and one can tell, by the way that they are sitting in the car, reflecting on what had just happened, that they can hardly believe it themselves.

While, on the surface, Two Thousand Maniacs! appears to be just another slasher movie from America’s drive-in days, there is a larger issue that lurks just beneath the surface: Two Thousand Maniacs is just one of many media representations designed to “other” rednecks and white trash from the American South. One must admit that the characterizations of the Southerners in Two Thousand Maniacs! are over the top stereotypes, and it’s easy to imagine that these stereotypes are difficult to bear even for the most biased Yankees. Indeed, when the film was first released, many Southerners were offended by it.

The truth is the Deep South is a popular setting for films like this. In fact, Lewis makes sure that the audience knows that the action takes place in the South. Confederate flags dot the landscape, hillbilly banjo music plays on the soundtrack, and crazy morons without standard English and with Southern accents have missing teeth, wear overalls, and look as if they have been covered in dirt reinforce that the story takes place in the rural South. While the cinematography contributes to the blood and gore of the horror aspect of the film, the hayseed rednecks in the film are there simply for comic relief. What is interesting about the film is that the victims are everyday people. In fact, the film likely works because it is easy to exploit the audience’s fear of being in the victim’s position.

The music from Two Thousand Maniacs! was a really pleasant surprise, and the renditions of “Dixie” and “Joe Clark” were spot on. It seems that while Lewis was working so hard to produce stereotypical representations of rednecks from the South, he actually got some authentic bluegrass music into the soundtrack. The Pleasant Valley Boys music was the highlight of the film. Lewis went out of his way to create the image of a twisted, sadistic banjo pickin’ episode of “Hee Haw” by having the band perform their songs during the murders and the music contributes to the overall feeling of the film in that it gives the film a strange feel—viewers don’t know whether they are watching “The Beverly Hillbillies” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

It is important to note that the film, Two Thousand Maniacs, was produced in 1964 during America’s battles for Civil Rights. In Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle, Allison Graham argues that during the Civil Rights Movement, American television opted for a less than realistic depiction of white Southerners than the television news programs of the day. In fact, according to Graham, American films that tried to discuss race relations were commercial failures.[5] Lewis’ plotline in Two Thousand Maniacs does what more traditional media could not do—creates monsters out of those who live in the South. By focusing on the literal ghosts of a violent and vengeful Confederacy, Lewis is able to make implicit claims about the “ghosts of the Confederacy” that still haunted the South a hundred years after the Civil War and played on the anxieties of the people in the rest of the United States.

What is interesting about Lewis’ film is not what is there, but what is missing. Although the film was released in the midst of America’s Civil Rights movement, there is no mention of race relations in the South or of the segregated South. In addition, there are no African American characters in the film at all. By focusing on the “centennial celebration” of Pleasant Valley and the destruction by Union troops, Lewis is able to make implicit claims about the South in Two Thousand Maniacs! The redneck ghosts of the Confederacy’s ritualistic acts of revenge represent the South’s obstinate refusal to desegregate the South during the Civil Rights movement. It is through the blood and gore of the film that Lewis illustrates the anxieties that the rest of the nation had in terms of their relationship with the South. Lewis plays on the South’s history of lynching people and other violence not sanctioned by the state, the South’s xenophobia and primitivism, and the South’s apparently unresolved regional conflicts with their northern neighbors. Two Thousand Maniacs! plays on the Northerner urbanites primal fear of being trapped in a town full of murderous rednecks.

In addition, Lewis uses Civil War vengeance as a cleverly disguised ironic commentary on Southern hospitality. In “Remapping Southern Hospitality,” Anthony Szczesiul comments on the film’s use of Southern hospitality and Southern stereotypes:

The film’s ironic parody of southern hospitality highlights the performative nature of the discourse. When Mayor Buckman delivers his promise of southern hospitality in his thick, cartoonish accent, the reference is immediately recognizable to all—the characters in the film, its actors and director, its original audience, and by us today—but here the possibility of southern hospitality is transformed into a cruel joke: the visitor becomes victim.[6]

While moviegoers might see the film as being a slasher film and that discussing the “othering” of Southerners in the film is simply reading too much into the film, this film is a part of a larger discourse about Southerners in American popular culture. The Southern accents of the characters in the film, their dress, their lack of dental work, the theme song “The South’s Gonna Rise Again,” and all of the other stereotypical representations and twists on Southern tropes allude to the fact that the South’s historical conflict with the rest of America had yet to be resolved. In addition, more contemporary representations of rural Americans (rednecks and white trash) illustrate that there are still unresolved conflicts between North and South and urban and rural. While these conflicts may exist, the representations of those who do not fit neatly within the American middle class hegemony need not be represented as less than human. When they are, this suggests that those within the American middle class hegemony don’t really want to have a meaningful conversation about the issues that divide us, they only want to “poison the well” by making “the other” something less than human.


Curry, Christopher. A Taste of Blood: the Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. London: Creation, 1998. p. 67.

Graham, Allison. Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle.     Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. p. 168-169.

Szczesiul, Anthony. “Re-mapping Southern Hospitality: Discourse, Ethics, Politics.” European Journal of American Culture 26.2 (2007). pg.132.

Unknown. Internet Movie Database. www.imdb.com

[1] See Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com

[2] Curry, Christopher. A Taste of Blood: the Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. (London. Creation, 1998). p.67

[3] For a summary of the movie, see imdb.com

[4] Ibid

[5] Graham, Allison. Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. P. 168-169.

[6] Szczesiul, Anthony. “Re-mapping Southern Hospitality: Discourse, Ethics, Politics.” European Journal of American Culture 26.2 (2007). pg.132.

William Matthew McCarter is a writer and a college professor from Southeast Missouri. Since completing his PhD at The University of Texas-Arlington, he has concentrated on publishing work that brings attention to his native rural America. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Sociological Imagination, Fastcapitalism, A Few Good Lines, Kritya, The Taj Mahal Review, and New South. In addition, his first academic book, Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America will be published in 2012.

“Soul Trail” by Craig Legg

I grew up in Birmingham in the early 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, though it is important to remember that it wasn’t called that then. I was roughly the same age as the four little girls killed in the infamous Sixteenth Street Church bombing. I watched the aftermath on teevee in my safe and secure house in the burbs same as some kid from New York or California. I was too busy growing up, going to school, and playing ball to pay attention to what had gone on in Birmingham before September 15, 1963, but this bombing certainly got my attention.

Spring of ’63 had seen the equally infamous demonstrations in downtown Birmingham featuring police dogs and fire hoses. The main effect of these demonstrations upon myself, sibs, and friends was that our parents no longer would allow us to go downtown Saturday mornings to the movies shown at local theaters such as the Melba, Empire, Ritz, Strand, and of course the grand ole  Alabama, Showplace of the South. We kids sure hoped the adults would get this ‘civil rights’ business settled soon so we could get back to the movies. Heck, it didn’t seem that hard to me. In both school and church we were taught that all people were equal. Seemed a no-brainer. The Birmingham newspapers didn’t make a big deal of it. Doing research years later, I was astounded to discover that many of the historic demonstrations hadn’t even made the front page, taking a back seat to the seemingly more important big picture of the Red Menace. The Cuban missile crisis had taken the world to the nuclear brink several months earlier, October 1962.

Of course Birmingham was strictly segregated then. The only black person I had direct contact with was my mother’s maid, who came once a week, via the city bus. It must have been truly a shadow world in which these maids lived and worked, not that I remember giving it much thought. Too busy growing up.

The main contact I had with black culture came through the radio. A couple of years earlier I had discovered rock & roll and its forerunner, rhythm & blues. The white AM stations in B’ham were pretty cool back then, spinning lotsa Sam & Dave, Otis & James, Motown & Stax/Volt, in between records by white artists. It didn’t take long to realize that most of my favorite hits were by blacks. But there seemed to exist a fuzzy cut-off point where the white stations wouldn’t play records that sounded too ‘black.’ They would play John Lee Hooker but not Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. They would play Chuck & Bo but not Elmore James. They censored Hank Ballard when he sang the Annie series. To hear this stuff we had to tune in to the black stations, WJLD and WENN. Here I was transported to an entirely new world, featuring classic R&B disc jockeys–all with poetic nicknames–Shelley the Playboy Stewart, Tall Paul White, Wee Willie McKinstry, Sam Double O Moore. These guys rocked my early teenage world, right in the midst of the historic civil rights’ strife. I didn’t know then that the jocks were also playing an important part in the demonstrations, by secret code transmitting demonstration times and places to their foot-soldier listeners.

There was so much I neither knew nor understood. Children are raised to accept, not to question. But rock & roll seethed with rebellion, even in original AM days, and through it I was learning to question. When my dad drove us on family vacations to Missouri and we passed through Mississippi and Tennessee I questioned the billboards we would see depicting ‘Martin Luther King in Communist Training School.’ When we’d get stopped by cops in St. Louis for no reason, I questioned why (Alabama license plates). Back in Birmingham, when all of a sudden we left our church to begin attending another, I questioned why. I was told that the new one was ‘closer’ to our home, but I later learned that the pastor of the first had said he would integrate, thus was voted out by the congregation. Ergo my folks left that church in the lurch and found another. My folks were border staters from Missouri, not into the Old South values of Big Seg.

Indeed, it was the religious aspect of the civil rights struggle that impressed me. If there really was a God then surely he was on the side of the blacks, who had righteousness in spades (har! a pun- pardon the racism). As the great Flip would say, “the devil made me do it!” Speaking of which, back to the so-called devil’s music of rock & roll in which, personally, I was more interested than in going to church.

At Homewood Junior High, located on the south slope of Red Mountain, our coaches used to make us run a trail up the side of the mountain after school during springtime, to keep us in shape for football season. The trail led to the radio station signal towers located atop the mountain, and one day me and some buddies ran up there and were pleasantly surprised to literally run right into the WJLD tower, a bit farther down from the white station towers. We tiptoed up to the small shack at the base of the tower and could hear the station’s music playing from a small speaker. We wanted to knock on the door but were afraid. We wondered if this might be the actual studio. I was excited that it could be…that we might get to see Shelley the Playboy or one of the other deejays in action.

BOOM! came a voice. “What chu all boys doin’ here?”

Seemingly out of nowhere this huge guy appeared behind us, almost like he was coming out of the woods. “We…uh…we were out running the trail, Sir…and we heard the music…”

“You boys like this music?”

“Yes Sir!”

That’s all of the conversation I can remember. Somehow we found our voices and were able to explain to the man that we were R&B fans and listened to the station sometimes. He seemed to get a kick out of this and introduced himself as an employee of the station, though not a deejay. But he offered to call the station and let us talk to the on-air jock, Sam Double O Moore.

“Really? We can talk to him?”

“You bet. It’s a few minutes after three o’clock, school check-in time.

Just tell him where you go to school and he’ll announce it on air…”

“Holy cow…”

We were all nervous, but my friend Garnett had the balls to do it, so he did the talking. When Mr. Moore asked if Homewood had a good football team, Garnett said “sure, we were number one in the county last year!”

“Ah, but that’s cuz you don’t play the black schools,” said Sam, “iffin’ you did you’d get that little ole number one knocked upside yo head…”

Which in time proved to be true…but that’s another story.

We couldn’t stay too long, as our coaches kept track, and would punish us for goofing off if we weren’t back by a certain time. So down the mountain we trekked that afternoon, happy as pigs in a poke that we had discovered the WJLD signal tower. It made us love the music even more, and we felt like real cool cats. It was 1964 and the British Invasion was in full-tilt boogie, with the Rolling Stones rumored to be bringing their American blues-based rock & roll to Birmingham on a fall tour of the States. If so, Garnett and I certainly would make the scene. We would have to get one of our parents to drive us, as we were still a couple of long years away from getting a driver’s license, the second-most ultimate dream of a teenager (one guess as to the first).

When that glorious day came (the drivers’ license, not the other) we could start driving ourselves downtown to the City (later Boutwell) Auditorium to see the Soul Review Shows we heard advertised on WJLD and WENN, starring Otis Redding & the Barkays, James Brown & the Famous Flames, the Wicked Pickett, Smokey & the Miracles, and whoever else might be on the bill. I had heard about these shows and had seen the posters but in ’64 I was still a couple of years away from attending one.

They are germane to this story though, so pardon me if I skip ahead and get right to it. I got my driver’s license in 1966 as a sophomore in high school and began attending the soul reviews. Usually there would be a small handful of white teenagers in attendance, but the audiences were 99% black. We never had any trouble. Indeed, the blacks seemed tickled to see us, amazed that we liked their music. Some even offered us shots of whiskey from pocket flasks. The shows themselves were nothing short of amazing, often six or seven acts on the bill- the action leading up to the headliners a veritable crescendo of rhythm & blues energy.

Our own little personal histories wouldn’t make news, of course. Hell, we might have been just a bunch of teenaged white boys, but at least we had already figured out what we wanted to be when we grew up- we wanted to be Soul Men!


“Hold on, I’m Comin’…”

That was Birmingham, just a few short years after the historic demonstrations, when the whole world was watching…all that other stuff.

Craig Legg lives and writes in Hooverville, Alabama, where he is writer-in-residence at his house.